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Experts convicted for failing to warn of Italy quake

L'AQUILA, Italy -- In a verdict that sent shock waves through the scientific community, a court convicted seven experts of manslaughter yesterday for failing to adequately warn residents of the risk before a magnitude-6.3 earthquake struck central Italy in 2009, killing 308 people.

The defendants, all prominent scientists or geological and disaster experts, were sentenced to six years in prison.

Earthquake experts worldwide decried the trial as ridiculous, saying there was no way of knowing that a flurry of tremors would lead to a deadly quake.

"It's a sad day for science," said seismologist Susan Hough, of the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena, Calif. That fellow seismic experts in Italy were singled out in the case "hits you in the gut," she said.

In Italy, convictions aren't definitive until after at least one appeal, so it was unlikely any of the defendants would face jail immediately.

Italian officials and experts have been prosecuted for quake-triggered damage in the past, including a 2002 school collapse in southern Italy that killed 27 children and a teacher. But that case centered on allegations of shoddy construction in quake-prone areas.

Among those convicted yesterday were some of Italy's internationally respected seismologists and geological experts, including Enzo Boschi, former head of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology.

"I am dejected, desperate," Boschi said. "I thought I would have been acquitted. I still don't understand what I was convicted of." The trial began in September 2011 in this Apennine town, whose devastated historic center is still largely deserted.

The defendants were accused of giving "inexact, incomplete and contradictory information" about whether small tremors felt by L'Aquila residents in the months before the April 6, 2009, quake should have been grounds for a warning.

"I consider myself innocent before God and men," said Bernardo De Bernardinis, a former official of the national Civil Protection Agency, also convicted.

Prosecutors argued that the L'Aquila disaster was tantamount to "monumental negligence," and cited the devastation wrought in 2005 when levees failed to protect New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science condemned the charges, verdict and sentencing as a complete misunderstanding about the science behind earthquake probabilities.

Twitter comments abounded, with references to Galileo, who was tried as a heretic in 1633 for his contention that the Earth revolved around the sun. In 1992, Pope John Paul II declared the church had erred.

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